A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #9



Rank: # 3


2007, R, 158 mins.

Robert Graysmith: Jake Gyllenhaal / Paul Avery: Robert Downey Jr. / Davd Toschi: Mark Ruffalo / Bill Armstrong: Anthony Edwards

Directed by David Fincher / Written by James Vanderbilt / Based on the book by Robert Graysmith

David Fincher’s ZODIAC is a crime masterpiece and a stirring and intoxicating police procedural.   This is not foreign territory for the director.  He made a real name for himself in his landmark police film noir thriller, SE7EN, which single-handedly reinvented the genre back in 1995.  His other efforts, like his evocative and timely social satire, FIGHT CLUB (one of the underrated films of the 1990’s) also demonstrated Fincher as a film making auteur with considerable skill and vision. 

Now comes his near three-hour ZODIAC, which never draws attention to its long running time.  It’s a sprawling, lavishly produced, and brilliantly told narrative of the investigation into one of the greatest unsolved mass murder cases in history.  Only a filmmaker with tremendous abilities could have pulled this off, and Fincher does so with dazzling period design, sharply written characters, and a fascinating story that spans four decades.  This is a virtuoso and painstakingly crafted crime epic and easily the best film of our young year.

The screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith, is a narrative jigsaw puzzle that does such an incredibly immersing job of diving into the most meticulous details of the Zodiac killings.  This is not some sort of glossed over, sanitized, TV movie of the week handling of the material.  The film wisely focuses on the men behind the investigation of the viscous brutality of the enigmatic killer.  It's chiefly concerned with how journalists, police investigators, the Federal government, and one highly resourceful editorial cartoonist spent decades trying to uncover the identity of a ruthless slasher that easily deserves worthy comparisons to England’s Jack the Ripper. 

Both the Zodiac and Ripper killings were unsolved and both killers’ identities were never discovered.  That’s perhaps the overall hook – and sheer ingenuity – of Fincher’s ZODIAC.  It crafts such a unilateral sense of foreboding dread and tension, despite the fact that we know that the film will never reveal who the real man behind the killer was.

However, that is not to say that Fincher and company don’t have a say on whom they think could have been the killer.  Despite the fact over a dozen people would eventually become suspects during the course of the long police investigation, ZODIAC sets its sights ultimately on one man.  That is not to say that the film ignores facts and details (to its ultimate credit, ZODIAC is a remarkably faithful and scrupulously detailed real-life-based work), but it simply offers up to the audience one interpretation of the established facts and draws its own conclusions. 

In many ways, ZODIAC reminded me considerably of another ingenious murder mystery, J.F.K., where the filmmaker offers his own prerogative on the who’s and the how’s of the case.  Both films use there liberal running times and a kaleidoscope of multiple characters and time lines to reveal a convoluted – but coordinated – explanation of their mysterious events.  Whether or not you agree with their outcomes is beside the point; what is crucial is the film’s journey, and ZODIAC never feels dull, lifeless, or meandering.  As a murder mystery and as a layered and intricate character study of obsession, it always lures us in without letting go.

The real enthralling aspect of the case is – yes – that it remains unsolved, and perhaps that it was, at the time of the killings, something that was really terrifying to the public.  The Zodiac killer operated primarily in Northern California for ten months in the late 1960’s.  He would coin his name in a series of letters that he sent to the press well into the 1970’s.  In his letters he sent puzzles in the form of cryptograms, and to this day only three of the four have ever been solved.  His murders seemed so ruthlessly random and no serious connections have ever been made between them all.  Some believe that that the killer knew his victims, but the evidence is flimsy at best.  To make matters ever more complicated, several other killings during the time have also been theorized to be Zodiac killings, but the evidence again has been limited.

No one was ever identified as the killer, and as more time elapses the true identity may never been known.  The San Francisco PD officially marked its Zodiac case as “inactive” in early 2004, citing pressures from other more pertinent and timely caseloads.  They would later reopen the case in 2007.  When the first DNA evidence from Zodiac letters was introduced for analysis, a partial genetic profile was generated, but these results appeared to have ruled out the main suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, the man the film itself seems to squarely focus it’s attention on.  If anything, the lack of anyone concretely solving this case has allowed it to enter to domain of American folklore.  In an age of flower power and hippy love, the Zodiac was a dark and deadly figure that permeated the American social conscience.

ZODIAC is so precise with embodying this vibe throughout its running time.  Even more significant is how it manages to go through a cross-section of different times, places and characters to create such a dense and nuanced perspective of the events.  It parallels the killer’s obsession with taunting the media with the obsession of a disregarded newspaper cartoonist who becomes so transfixed in the case that it eventually destroys his personal relationships.  Early in the film he is shown as an unassuming amateur detective with a penchant for puzzles and anagrams.  However, when the Zodiac murders begin - and when the cryptic letters start arriving at his newspaper’s offices - he begins to be drawn into the evidence.  Like Jim Garrison in J.F.K., his initial curiosity overtakes him into a realm of near fatalistic fixation. 

After a chilling and unnerving introductory scene of the first Zodiac killing (portrayed with a Hitchcockian predilection for timing and tension), Fincher settles into the narrative.  After the first killing letters start arriving at the editorial offices of three Bay Area newspapers, one of which is the San Francisco Chronicle.  Within the letters is a very sophisticated and complex code, but the letters themselves also simply reveal the fact that the writer has claimed responsibility for the murders.  He gives intimate details from the crime scene that only the murderer and police could now.  After the newspaper corroborates the facts of the letter with the real crime scene details, the editor soon realizes that this letter is from the actual killer.  Even more unsettling is the fact that the murderer says the worst is yet to come.

Robert Graysmith (in yet another rock solid performance by Jake Gyllenhaal) is the newspaper’s cartoonist, but while penning political shots at Tricky Dick, he is able to see some of the code from the letters.  He begins to take a real interest in the case, which – more or less – seems to really turn off Paul Avery (played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr.), the reporter assigned to the case.  Avery too is interested in the case, and he begins to fuel the paper’s stories with a combination of facts and idle speculation.  Avery is a walking, eye-twitching, neurotic time bomb that is habitually addicted to alcohol and later to drugs.  Saying that Robert Downey Jr. playing the character is a walk in the park for the actor – considering his past problems with sobriety – is redundant.  He inhabits this manic and lucid-tongued reporter with an underplayed drollness, rebelliousness, and wackiness.  It’s one of his most inspired performances.

The film then segues into the police investigation, where two intrepid police detectives, Dave Tosci (the great Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (the quietly effective Anthony Edwards) use their skills in the homicide division to start gathering clues in hopes of solving the case.  At times, their journey has numerous decent starts which leads to dead ends.  They often get assistance from Graysmith and Avery.  Considering the fact that the papers were the ones getting the letters, then they would seem like the first place the police would go to. 

Unfortunately, the officers and journalists become embroiled in a jurisdictional tug of war not only with each other over evidence, but with other police files from outside towns where some of the murders were committed.  What’s intriguing in the film is how the investigators are sometimes not thrown off course on the case by the evidence, but rather on the lack of disclosure of the evidence from other investigators.  Policemen and journalists from opposing towns get involved in a pendulum of you scratch my back, I'll scratch your's.

Years pass and the Zodiac killings stop, and the multiple-jurisdictional investigation also seems to slow down.  Graysmith becomes entombed within all of the minutiae of the case.  He begins to investigate old files, records, reports, and looks back at testimony and the encrypted letters from the Zodiac himself.  Soon, he begins to sacrifice everything that he has successfully built around him in order to bury himself in the case and solve it once and for all.  He decides to abandon his artistic career to write a book about the madman and hopes one day to be able to look the killer right in the eyes and know that he has caught him.  The more he plunges head first into the case files, the more he’s convinced that Arthur Leigh Allen is his prime suspect.  Whether or not the real Allen was a legitimate suspect is questionable, but there is no denying that the film paints a rather convincing argument towards his guilt.

As far as thrillers go, ZODIAC is longer than the norm by typical standards in terms of running time.  Yet, the film’s length is kind of necessary to its overall effect.  Yes, it’s long, but it’s never tediously lengthy, and it sort of accentuates the scope and breadth of the decades-long investigation into the murders.  Some critics have said that the film lacks narrative focus, jumping around from one investigator to the next.  However, that aspect more or less reinforces the myriad of people that were a part of the investigation and how complicated a process it was.  Like it was in real life, the film showcases false starts, quickly and hastily made conclusions that were made from a cursory look at the evidence, and how frustrating the lack of cohesion and cooperation that existed between the journalists and police.  Inexorably, the film is about the fanatical journey towards discovery and the absolute failure that lies at the end of that journey.  Graysmith thinks he has found his man, but the circumstantial nature of the evidence does not make his case airtight.  This only fuels his drive.

Fincher’s directorial eye has never been as confident and rock steady.  From a technical standpoint, the film is not the film noir escapade of stylistic flourishes that made SE7EN so atmospheric and creepy.  Instead, Fincher let’s the story and characters speak for themselves.  In terms of production values, ZODIAC completely immerses the viewer during its various time periods and uses state of the art visual effects to create a completely realistic backdrop of San Francisco from the 60’s and 70’s.  The period decor here so accomplished that it's almost kind of invisible; you truly feel in the moment. 

The lack of overly fancy camera work and aesthetic touches lends credibility to the story and rightfully allows the viewer to feel like their inhabiting the America of the past.  Modern visual techniques would have washed out the period detail.  Fincher lets the multiple characters, the multi-faceted storyline, and his timing with scenes create an eerie docu-drama aura to the proceedings.  There is a definitive level of fear and anxiety that permeates the film.  Unlike other films about serial killers, ZODIAC is never exploitative and gratuitous.  The movie is chilling in the way it taps into America’s then fledging fascination with sadistic killers and how one man’s interest spirals into fixation.  Like Graysmith in the film, the longer the film progresses, the more we want to – and need to - know more details.

ZODIAC is epic in length and structure, and it daringly and consummately deals with a landmark unsolved American murder mystery that has remained as enigmatic as it was when the atrocities first occurred in the late 1960’s.  With captivating performances, impeccable period detail, and heart pounding pacing, the film is executed with exemplary skill and patient precision by David Fincher.  The film is ultimately engrossing not in the way that it focuses primarily on the killer (which is the focal point of other similar films), but in how it hones in on the people on the fringes of the monster.  The film is more interested in the milieu of how an everyman can become enthralled by multiple murders and in his self-fulfilling duty to solve them.  In many ways, Fincher has dialed down his normative noir style he has used in the past and instead tells a great mystery story from a fly on the wall perspective.  Similar to the great films about investigative journalism, like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and unsolved murder mysteries like J.F.K., ZODIAC is an absorbing, intricate, and fiercely ambitious thriller that stays with you.  If Eastwood dominates the Western genre, Lucas and Jackson the Fantasy, and Scorsese the gangster film, then it can now be said that Fincher has complete command of the crime thriller.  ZODIAC easily typifies this.  

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